Cultural adaptation

In addition to developing skills to communicate across cultures, it is important to prepare for the emotional or internal experience we will have when going abroad. Moving from a culture with a particular orientation to one at the other end of the continuum, requires a period of adjustment. There are certain things we can expect to happen as we make that adjustment and also things we can do to ease it.

The U-curve is a well-known model depicting a predictable pattern of stages most everyone goes through when they enter a new culture. It contains four stages:
  • Honeymoon 
  • Conflict 
  • Critical 
  • Recovery 
Later, a W-curve model was developed to add a fifth stage (re-entry) to explain the feelings experienced upon returning to one’s home country after a sojourn abroad.

In the honeymoon stage you feel excitement and fascination with the new culture. Everything is new, novel and interesting—the food, architecture, people’s behavior. Minor annoyances are overlooked and you eagerly seek out new experiences and interactions; you want to learn and to understand everything you see.

In the conflict stage excitement turns to disappointment as annoyances multiply and in spite of your efforts to interact with the culture and understand it, nothing seems to make sense. Problems begin to outnumber enjoyable experiences and you may “fight back” by criticizing everything and everyone.

In the critical stage you begin to look at yourself and your behavior critically; to accept responsibility for your part in your discomfort and disappointment. You begin to more fairly judge what is around you rather than looking through your own cultural lens to evaluate situations and people’s behavior.

In the recovery stage you begin to understand the actions of members of the host culture; you feel a part of the community or have made friends; you have developed a greater tolerance for what is strange and new. At this stage you can often even act as a mediator between others from your culture and the host culture.

The important thing to remember is that going through the stages of cultural adaptation is a natural process and also an individual process. Everyone goes through it but does so in his or her own way and own time. Knowing that you are not experiencing unnatural feelings and that you will overcome those that might be negative can help you have the best experience possible.